Recovering from sex addiction requires following a 12-step program. Such programs have become synonymous with people’s efforts to change their lives and behavior, and have been applied to everything including overeating, sex, compulsive gambling, and drug addiction.
The original 12-step program was published by Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s to treat alcoholism. Since then, it has been adapted and directed to other forms of addiction and compulsive behavior and has been recognized by the American Psychological Foundation. Minor details in each of the 12 steps of the program change depending on what is being handled, but they all follow the same template. While there is debate about what defines addiction, many agree that the brain becomes dependent on chemicals that are either absorbed (alcohol) or produced naturally through behavior, such as sex or gambling.
The first step is for sex addicts to admit that they have no control over their sex addiction and that their lives have spiraled out of control. This measure basically defines sex addiction, a situation where a person is no longer able to control their sexual behavior even though it is causing them problems. This may sound funny, but if sex addicts can control their behavior, they will not become addicts. Acknowledging powerlessness also opens the door to outside help. A person with a broken leg doesn’t try to fix it themselves, they call the doctor because they don’t have the skills to heal themselves. It’s no different than a sex addiction.
The second step is acknowledging there is a “higher power” that can help the addict with his addiction. This and the next step are perhaps the two least understood, as “higher power” generally refers to God. While many go through a 12-step program converting to the Christian faith, anything can serve as a higher power. A person can look up at the sun, a favorite object, anything that can mentally equate to a power above themselves. Some neuroscientists say that the human brain is hard-wired toward religion, and therefore it can be used as a powerful tool in influencing behavior.
The higher power plays the role of a neutral but supportive third part in the life of a sex addict. Not the addicts themselves, nor their therapist, nor is it a loved one who might be abused by the addict or someone who will judge them.
Compulsive sexual behavior
The third step is to surrender themselves to that higher power, as they understand it. Many sex addicts start reading the Bible and attending religious services of their faith. Others will take different spiritual texts as their understanding of their higher powers. Books or faith or beliefs are not important here, what matters is that dependence on self can turn to dependence on a higher power. Most religions have set guidelines on sexual behavior, as well as other aspects of life, and create ready-made codes of conduct that a person can adhere to, at least until their life is under their control once again.
The fourth step is where the sex addict gets to the “nitty gritty” of their problem and comes to see what it looks like from the outside by completing their own “moral inventory”. This inventory documents their lives and how and when their sexual habits, failures, and other common behaviors were initiated in an attempt to see the big picture and have an accurate understanding of what it is. Usually, a deadline is put at this step, as many addicts tend to get hung up on it, either because they find it difficult to examine themselves this way, or feel the need to be too thorough.
The fifth step involves taking that inventory and showing it to someone else, be it a spouse, sponsor, clergyman or trusted confidant, or even another sex addict further into their care. This is done for several reasons. If a sex addict can share this, it means they are comfortable with it to some degree and will be able to open up further because looking at the behavioral inventory may not be enough to make the sex addict really see their problem or recognize patterns in their behavior. When it comes to familiars, an addict looks at what they want rather than what they really are. It’s the same when an athlete needs a coach to check their stance or swing or stance for their sport. So sex addicts need another pair of eyes on their moral inventory to catch things and get feedback from a different perspective.
Steps six and seven of the original version of Alcoholics Anonymous ask a higher power or God to remove the addict’s defects and to forgive them. Another, more secular-minded version describes these steps as a similar transitional period. Sex addicts go from identifying the problem to recognizing that they, themselves, have now passed that stage and can now expend energy on making a change. Addicts are taught to see that mistakes have been made cannot be corrected, and hoping to change the past is a waste of energy. While this isn’t a “clear slate,” it’s a shift in focus to the present, which sex addicts can influence.
The eighth step, although at first it may seem like looking back, is actually for the addict to compile a list of people who have been harmed by their sex addiction. This may be the family they neglected, the spouse they cheated on, and in extreme cases, the victim of their sexual abuse. This step is sometimes broken down into smaller segments, identifying the types of relationships that are harmed by sex addiction. In the case of a deceased loved one or one the addict cannot contact, this step serves as an emotional release by further letting the addict see the extent of the damage caused by his behavior.
The ninth step is an extension of the eighth step, and involves remediation with the people identified in that step, if possible. It could be something as simple as a verbal apology, and may not be something that can be accomplished in an instant, a day, or even months. This step is typical for the individual involved, and is not entirely possible in all cases.
Step 10 is to continue the list from step five, and admit when mistakes have been made. It can extend beyond sexual behavior and include any kind of unwanted action or emotion. It is these negative feelings that cause sex addicts to compulsively seek numbing behaviors to begin with. And being able to identify those trouble spots and deal with them in a way that doesn’t feed a new addiction cycle is key. Sex addiction is often accompanied by other forms of addiction, or it can develop into these other forms if the root cause is not monitored.
Prayer and meditation are Step 11 in the program. Many call prayer and meditation one and the same, but whichever route sex addicts choose, they must set aside time each day for quiet reflection. Daily breaks are used as anchors to keep the complexities of the addict’s outer world from becoming overwhelming. This move allows sex addicts to remind themselves of their progress and the tools at their disposal to fight their urges.
The final step is to work with other sex addicts, or pass on some of the knowledge the addict has already acquired. The selfless side of this is ensuring a pool of experienced teachers who are well versed in the subject matter that can sustain the program. The benefits for addicts who teach are the same as for teachers; people who impart wisdom in turn learn more about what they already know. Having to articulate to others what has been learned makes a person think about benefits in a way they have never done before, and leads to greater understanding.
These are the 12 basic steps found in addiction recovery programs. Many are closely related, but together they show progress. It should be noted that this program is not a “do these 12 things and you are cured” recipe, but at a higher level is a lifelong set of behaviors. They may play a less active role in the recovery of a sex addict’s life over time, but inventory, meditation, and teaching are likely to be in the background for a long time.